Book Review: The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain

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A Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence dedicated decades of his life to Celtic culture and its occult belief and practices. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is fruit of such passion where Spence proves the predisposition of the Celtic peoples to the arcane, otherwordly and mysterious throughout the centuries, from ancient times to the modern era.

Proud to be part of the Celtic race and with a profound love and devotion to every subject he explores, Spence proceeds to analyze painstakingly account after account, episode after episode and anecdote after anecdote with respect and a clear head. Having divided his opus in fourteen sections, he begins by introducing the notion of magic and defining its meaning as the Celts perceived it and lived it in their lifetime. Of particular interest are the ways the entire magical system manifested in the case of the Druids and the prowess and skills they possessed when employing it.

We’re told the Druids were rumored to raise fogs, call forth fire and blood from the heavens, cause storms and be baleful polymorphs themselves. Just like we’re made aware of the draught of forgetfulness and the use of the magic wand, the silver branch and the stone of Lia Fail, the story of the dragons of British myth and the tales of Vortigern and Ambrosius Merlin. Of magical weapons and the ability to raise people from amongst the dead, of the fire-walking skill and the magical cups.

Spence is concerned with the problem of Druidry and presents the debate going on around said topic. The origins of the Druids as well as mentions of them in the classical sources are discussed at length with the Scottish author examining their existence in Britain, Wales, Ireland and other parts of the world besides Gaul. Though he’s of the opinion that the cradle of it was in Gaul and proposes the Iberian theory regarding their origins. The tenets and characteristics of Druidry are brought forth along with the mention of female figures amongst the caste, with emphasis on the tales of the Druidesses of the Loire and the isle of Sena.

A bevy of spells and charms are illustrated, among them the Irish geas, the spell of fith-fath along with spells of invisibility and those associated with fire. The narrative of the salmon of knowledge is recounted as well as the significance of the feast of Samhain, the chapter ending with the mention of various herbs and magical stones as protective charms.

Spence focuses on the following chapter on the magical books of the Celts, containing prose and poetry of mystical significance, like the Stones of Gwyddon, The Battle of the Trees, Avellenau, the Carmina Gadelica, the Black Book of Caermarthen and others. An intriguing story concerns The Red Book of Appin, whose genesis and history are steeped in strange circumstances.

The Celts, we’re shown, throughout their culture have forged a special fellowship with and affinity for the supernatural world, more than any other race. The spirit world of the Celtic imagination is vast and houses in its bosom a bevy of eerie and unearthly beings such as ghosts, banshees, kelpies, leprecauns, brownies and waterhorses. Of the most celebrated of these creatures in literature and legend are Gwyn ap Nudd and his hounds who presage the Wild Hunt and the Tylwyth Teg, one of the many names the fairies respond to.

Spence talks extensively of the cult of the fairies and their importance in the Celtic imagined reality. He proposes the theory of the fairies being either elementary spirits or ancestral ghosts haunting mounds, though the possibility of them being the spirits of the dead awaiting reincarnation or even those of the Druids isn’t excluded from contemplation.

Necromancy, prophecy and divination have been famous practices throughout the Celtic peoples. However, true instances of necromancy provide a different manner of conception and practice in comparison to other cultures like the ancient Greek. For the Celts didn’t resort to attempts of raising the dead with the purpose of asking them questions about the future. Rather they communicated with the spirit world to divine it. Augury and divination was achieved through various means such as the flight of birds, especially the raven and wren, the movement of the flames of fire and through other animals like the hare. Just like it could be achieved through crystal-gazing and the druidical elucidator.

The belief in reincarnation is a complex and riveting subject among the Celts, one strongly associated with the teachings of the Druids. Spence draws a comparison with the doctrine of reincarnation as analyzed by the ancient Greek figure of Pythagoras, in the end rejecting that either culture influenced the other in that respect. Spence argues the concept of Pythagorean reincarnation enjoyed only a brief lifespan and was limited only to the ancient Greek world, a fact that makes it impossible for the Druids to have come in contact with it or for the Druids themselves to have influenced the ancient Greek philosopher in that regard.

The most significant difference between the two lies in the fact that Pythagoras viewed reincarnation as a means of punishment and expiation for the sins a person committed, where they were forced after death to enter various circles of existence as animals until they cleansed themselves of their offenses and reached a state of purity. The Druids, however, put forth no such creed, believing that after the physical death, a person was reborn as his/her offspring (initially that referred only to royalty and bore an immediate association with the cult of the sun worship but later it spread to common people as well) or inhabited rocks, trees and other natural objects.

Another captivating concept in which Spence insists is that of the divine kingship and the ritual sacrifice of the divine king, which he declares was adopted by the Celts from the cult of the divine king the way it was celebrated in Egypt, one associated with a fertitility and sun cultus.

Various facets of Celtic mysticism are highlighted, some of them sprung from the druidic caste, such as its inherent philosophy, its spirituality and the unity of the Godhead implicit in its doctrine. The oak featured as a sacred tree for the Druids, and the cult of it was one of the most famous amongst the Celts, bearing stunning similarities both with the fertility cult and that of the divine kingship.

The mistletoe, along with the oak, was revered, its arcane significance rendering it a symbol of fertility and creating a connection with the silver branch of Celtic legend. Spence further talks about the Druids, citing the classical sources regarding human sacrifices, methods of sacrifice, victims immolated in wicker cages and divination from the sacrificial victims.

Although most of the written accounts of Iolo Morganwg are nothing but pure forgery, Spence focuses on the circles of life as Morganwg discussed them in his work. Regarding reincarnation, four states of being exist that reveal influence from the Pythagorean philosophy: Annwn (lowest state, Hades or Fairyland)  Abred (probation state), Gwynfyd (perfect liberty) and Ceugant (infinity).

The mysticism of the Celts is further explored through their penchant for astrology, the hunting of the wren and the various bird-forms many figures assume in British mythology. Spence, disappointed by the many poor translations of ancient and medieval Celtic literary works, attempts to trace the origins of some of the characters appearing in Celtic myth and legend such as Arianhod, Dylan, Hu, Taliesin Ceridwen and Beli.

He returns once again to Morganwg’s states of being and explores the Otherworld of the British myth and legend as it is presented in the poem attributed to Taliesin, The Spoils of Annwn. Annwn’s mystical nature is brought forth along with the importance of  its many otherwordly fortresses.

Spence makes a commendable attempt to unearth the origin of the Arthurian myth. Putting forth a compelling theory, Spence declares the figure of Arthur belongs more to mythology than to history. He identifies him with the god Bran and proposes that Arthur was the object of a cult. We’re told that the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably a historical person, a Romano-British noble, a general who fought against the Saxons.

Perhaps it was him who founded the cult of Arthur. Both a solar deity and one of war who aided the Celts in the dark years of foreign invasion, infusing them with patriotic enthusiasm and the strength required to fight against the foreign conquerors. What’s even more enticing is the connection Spence points out between Arthur and Osiris and the wounded Fisher King.

Spence sheds light on the figure of Osiris, presenting him as a deity existing in a state between life and death, asleep until called to awaken. Just like Arthur who, residing in the isle of Avallon, awaits to wake to life and aid Britain in its hour of need. Additionally, Spence states that Arthur and the Fisher king are one and the same, for Arthur lies wounded, his injury between the thighs symbolizing his sins and the loss of fertility of the land caused by them. A punishment for his trangressions and his fall from the status of the divine king.

Of course, when the Arthurian myth takes the spotlight, its companion, the Holy Grail, always demands equal attention. Spence proceeds to explain its etymology and origins and presents the Christian narrative of the Last Supper and the role of Joseph of Arimathea. He argues with conviction that the Holy Grail is nothing more but the pearl-rimmed cauldron Arthur braved the depths of Annwn to possess as the tale is narrated in the poem, The Spoils of Annwn, and when the Christian faith started spreading over the British isles, its representatives found an already fertile ground sown with a multitude of Celtic sources which they tinged with their own perspective.

Spence focuses on its presence in the early romances and its association with Glastonbury. He explores the quest the knights undertake to find the Holy Grail (many of whom take on the the transformed names of British gods) as well as the secret words associated with it, drawing parallels with the story of king Amangons and his offence against the well-maidens whose cups he stole, cups which take on the symbolic role of the Holy Grail.

Spence concludes with his last chapter dedicated to the phenomenon of the second sight. He provides us with numerous episodes of people possessing such a gift, claiming such cases take place in Scotland, though not exclusively. He offers the opinion of others about whether the second sight is a condition of hereditary magic or not as well as evidence from Scottish sources that prove that it was originally employed as a means of coming in contact with the fairies.

If the second sight was an ability that could be taught, Spence views it as a cultus instituted by an ancient caste, probably of druidic origin. A method used by the Druids with the purpose of opening up a portal of communication with the Celtic gods.

Undoutedly, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is a grand and stunning opus, the result of an author whose soul flamed with the romance and poetry of the Celtic race. Throughout its pages, we’re exposed to a compelling, fascinating and thoroughly researched study on a plethora of topics that revolve around the colourful and dreamy magico-religious system of the Celts.

Spence presents an abundance of material to back up his claims and prove his theories, rendering the book a tapestry of erudition whose manifold threads are meant to bring to light the very blood that pumps into the Celtic heart and satisfy even the most cantakerous readers.

Cernunnos: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part II)

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The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god”, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

In my essay Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic  I focused on the topic of forging a religiοus faith ab ovo based on mythology within a fantastic narrative. I especially touched on the mortal aspect of my mythic fantasy novel and explored the worship pertaining to my human characters.

As I’ve previously explained, Celtic motifs and perceptions abound in my work, so my cast of characters is quite miscellaneous. Therefore a number of races parade through the pages, bringing with them their own distinct beliefs and customs. I’ve essentially divided them into two groups: humans and otherwordly folk, the latter counting a cluster of kindred yet distinct nations.

The one that features prominently in my novel are the fairies or more specifically the faes as I’ve taken to calling them. Portrayed as wild and unpredictable but, also, passionate and instinctual, they are characterized by an immense joie de vivre, celebrating strength, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Keeping this psychological profile of theirs in mind, I wanted their divine cult to reflect all these qualities. And what deity could encapsulate them better than the Gaulish one named Cernunnos? For my human characters, I resorted to the The Mabinogion and the figure of Olwen, upgrading her status from a maiden with magical abilities to a divinity. However, for my fae characters there was no need to proceed likewise and fabricate a supreme being from scratch because the vision of the god I had conceived had already enjoyed once a real-life, historical basis.

But who is this fascinating deity and which are his origins?

In Celtic studies, Cernunnos is the conventional name ascribed to depictions of the horned god of Celtic polytheism. Predominantly worshipped amongst the Celtic tribes of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, multiple examples of his imagery have been found, dating from the Gallo-Romam period. His illustrations typically present him with a pair of antlers, seated cross-legged and holding a torc or wearing it around his throat. His companions are often stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls and rats, with the first two the most frequent.

Unfortunately, due to lack of surviving literary sources, not much is known about his name, worshippers or his significance in Celtic religion. However, Cernunnos is mostly associated with animals, nature and fertility.

His mame is spotted only on a Gallo-Roman monument, Pillar of the Boatmen, dating to the early 1st century CE.  The Proto-Celtic form of the theonym is reconstructed as either *Cerno-on-os or *Carno-on-os. The augmentative -on- is characteristic of theonyms, as in Maponos, Epona, Matronae, and Sirona. The etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for “horn” or “antler” (as in Carnonos).

The Gaulish word karnon “horn” is cognate with Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz, English horn, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *k̑r̥no-. The etymon karn- “horn” appears in both Gaulish and Galatian branches of Continental Celtic. Hesychius of Alexandria glosses the Galatian word karnon (κάρνον) as “Gallic trumpet”, that is, the Celtic military horn known as the carnyx (κάρνυξ) by Eustathius of Thessalonica, who notes the instrument’s animal-shaped bell. The root also appears in the names of Celtic polities, most prominent among them the Carnutes, its meaning akin to “the Horned Ones”.

A comparison has, also, been drawn to a divine epithet Carnonos in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters at Montagnac, Hérault (as καρνονου, karnonou, in the dative case) along with a Gallo-Latin adjective carnuātus that has, also, been found.

Now displayed in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, the Pillar of the Boatmen monument was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii. A strong hypothesis suggests it was originally constructed by Gaulish sailors in 14 CE.

The singular stone pillar holds a significant position as monument in the Gallo-Roman religion. Roman deities such as Jupiter, Vulcan, Castor and Pollux along with Gallic deities such as Esus, Smertrios, Tavros and Triganarus are depicted and labelled by name on its low reliefs. The name Cernunnos can be read clearly on 18th century drawings of the inscriptions, but the initial letter has been obscured since, so that today only a reading [_]ernunnos can be verified.

The god identified as Cernunnos in this monument is depicted with stag’s antlers, both having torcs hanging from them. The lower part of the relief is now lost to us, but the dimensions imply that the god was sitting cross-legged,  a direct parallel to the antlered figure crafted on the Gundestrup cauldron.

Due to the Gundestrup Cauldron, some scholars describe Cernunnos as the “Lord of the Animals” or the “Lord of Wild Things”, with Miranda Green describing him as a “peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness”, his stance suggesting  traditional shamans often depicted surrounded by animals.

Through the Pillar of Boatmen, Cerunnos is associated with sailors and commence, an obvious link to material wealth, something supported by the the coin pouch from the Cernunnos of Rheims (Marne, Champagne, France)—in antiquity, Durocortorum, the civitas capital of the Remi tribe—and the stag vomiting coins from Niedercorn-Turbelslach (Luxembourg) in the lands of the Treveri. The god may have symbolized the fecundity of the stag-inhabited forest.

Horned or antlered figures feature amongst the Celtiberians, too. For example,  there’s a “Janus-like” god from Candelario (Salamanca) with two faces and two small horns,  a horned god from the hills of Ríotinto (Huelva); and a possible representation of the deity Vestius Aloniecus near his altars in Lourizán (Pontevedra). The horns are thought to symbolize “aggressive power, genetic vigor and fecundity.”

Attempts have been made to link Cernunnos to Conall Cernach, the foster brother of the Irish hero Cuchulainn in the Ulster Cycle by virtue of the cern root in his name.  Cernach is taken as an epithet with a wide semantic field—”angular; victorious; bearing a prominent growth”—and Conall is seen as “the same figure” as the ancient deity of Cernunnos.

However, there exists more evidence than merely their etymological connection. In a passage in the  eighth-century story entitled Táin Bó Fraích (“The Cattle Raid on Fraech”) Conall Cernach is portrayed as a hero and mighty warrior who assists the protagonist, Fraech, in rescuing his wife and son, and in reclaiming for Fraech his cattle. The fort that Conall must penetrate is guarded by a formidable serpent. The tale, however, ends on an anti-climatic note when the fearsome serpent, instead of attacking Conall, darts to Conall’s waist and girdles him as a belt. Rather than slaying the serpent, Conall allows it to live, and then proceeds to attack and rob the fort of its great treasures the serpent previously protected.

By virtue of interpretatio romana, Cernunnos is seen as the Gaulish manifestation of the Roman Dis Pater, sharing the latter’s responsibility of ruling over the hidden treasures of the underworld. Treasures located underground were associated with the serpent in Medieval Bestiaries that guarded the otherworld and all its treasures and mysteries.

Cernunnos is depicted on a stone statue from a well in Sommerécourt, Haute-Marne, France, and on a bronze figurine from Autun. Both statue and figurine portray Cernunnos with the two ram-headed serpents encircling his waist. It’s no accident then that the serpent that guarded the treasure of the fort in Táin Bó Fraích yielded to Conall Cernach and became his actual, living belt. The anti-climax of the Táin Bó Fraích‘s end sheds light on the link between a horned or antler-bearing deity, warrior, or progenitor, and the chthonic dwelling, treasure-guarding serpent that girdled the waist of the one it chose to protect.

Some of Cernunnos’ qualties are reflected on the life of Saint Ciarán of Saighir, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who, upon the construction of his cell, accepted his first disciple and monk in the form of a boar that had been rendered gentle by God, the beast later joined by a fox, badger, wolf and stag.

Whether a god of fertility and the primordial call of the wild, a representation of material wealth and prosperity or the sacred keeper of the underworld, Cernunnos surely remains a fascinating and alluring figure, the mysteries of his cult now echoing in mythic narrations, patiently waiting to be unveiled and studied by those willing to dig deep enough to find the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ursilla and the Selkie-Folk

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Mythologies from various cultures have given us numberless tales where the world of humans and that of animals blend into each other. Shapeshifting or therianthropy is a common motif appearing in various nations across the continents where human beings possess the magical ability to metamorphose into other animals. From the 2nd BC century where Pausanias recounts the story of Lycaon, the first lycanthrope or werewolf, to the cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, and from the Irish cycle narrating the transformation of Lir’s children into swans to the Navajo’s tribal belief in skinwalkers, shapeshifting is deeply rooted in humanity’s imagined reality.

A particular form of therianthropy can be found in Gaelic accounts from the Northern isles (Orkney and Shetland) where narratives of the selkie folk abound.  The selkie folk are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. The majority of these yarns centre on the love affairs between mortal men and female selkies.

A man steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife. But the wife always yearns to reunite with her brethren in the sea, and often stares with longing at the ocean. She usually bears several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she leaps into the sea, abandoning forever the children she once loved and took care of.

Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Others  it is revealed she already had a first husband of her own kind, from whom she was forced to separate. In some versions, the selkie wife is never seen again by the family in her human form, but the children are approached by a large seal, the animal “greeting” them plaintively.

Male selkies are rumoured to be very handsome as humans and invincible when it comes to seducing human women, usually seeking those dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands.

During the 19th century, in 1893, the Orkney antiquarian and folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison,  published in the pages of the Scottish Antiquary the semi-mythical yarn of an Orcadian woman who engages in an affair with a selkie man and gives birth to children with distinctive physical traits. 

Dennison, reluctant to ”bring shame on the family and embarass her descendants” and willing to protect her honour and reputation, doesn’t disclose her real name. Instead, he calls her Ursilla.

Ursilla was the daughter of a laird belonging to one of the oldest families in Orkney.

She was handsome and pretty, but had a sternness of manner, and that firmness of features which often presents a masculine exterior in families of Norse blood, and often hides, as with a film of ice, a loving heart within.

Ursilla was not one to wait patiently till some one turned up to offer himself as her husband. Indeed, had any one presumed to approach her as a lover, she would have treated him with haughty disdain, regarding his bold presumption as sufficient ground for his rejection.

She determined not to be chosen, but to choose for herself.

Her choice fell on a young handsome fellow, who acted as her father’s barn-man. But she knew that any disclosure of her passion would mortally offend her old father and bitterly mortify his family pride and might lead him to disinherit her.

So she locked up her love in her own breast; kept watchful eye on the object of her love, and treated him to a full share of the scoldings she daily bestowed on the servants.

When, however, her father died, and her [dowry] was safe, she disclosed her passion to the young man, and commanded him to marry her—a command which he was too gallant to disobey.

Her marriage excited among the gentry great indignation; to think that one of their class should marry a farm-servant. Ursilla treated their contempt with indifference; she made a good housewife, managed her house well, and also, it was said, managed her husband and the farm.

Yes, Ursilla was married, and all went well and happily, so far as outward appearances showed; Yet Ursilla was not happy. If disappointed in her husband, she was far too proud to acknowledge it, knowing that the gentry would only say in derision, “She shaped her own cloth, let her wear her ill-fitting dress.”

Whatever the cause might be, there was a terrible want — a want that Ursilla felt bitterly.

And she was not the woman to sit down and cry over her sorrow; she determined to console herself by having intercourse with one of the selkie-folk.

She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie-folk. Well, as the first glimpse of dawn made the waters grey, she saw a big selkie swimming for the rock.

He raised his head, and says he to her, “What’s your will with me, fair lady?”

She likely told him what was in her mind; and he told her he would visit her at the seventh stream [spring tide], for that was the time he could come in human form.

So, when the time was come, he came; and they met over and over again. And, doubtless, it was not for good that they met so often. Anyway, when Ursilla’s bairns were born every one of them had web hands and webbed feet, like the paws of a selkie.

And did not that tell a tale?

The midwife clipped the webs between every finger, and between every toe of each bairn.

“She showed the shears that she used to my grandmother.” So said the narrator. And many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing together again; and the fins not being allowed to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance is seen in many of Ursilla’s descendants to this day.

Whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true.

The horn still appears on feet and hands of some of the lady’s descendants. One, two, or three in a family may show the abnormal horny substance; while brothers and sisters are entirely free from the troublesome horn.

Some ten years ago, while engaging a harvest hand, I said to one of these men, “Of course, you can do all kinds of harvest work?”

“Oh na, sir,” said he, “hid’s nae use tae tell a lee aboot hid; but I cinno’ bind a sheaf wi’ this plaguid horn in me livs.”

Another of the same family told me that when, through the growth of the horn, he was unable to walk or work, he would, with hammer and chisel, cut off large slices of horn from the soles of his feet. This growth is by no means confined to those engaged in manual labour. I have felt it on the hands of one of the same race who followed a profession where manual labour was not required.

This curious phenomenon seems well worthy of careful investigation by the physiologist. Pity it could not be traced to the seal; we might then be in sight of the missing link.

Many wild tales were told of the offspring of such strange parentage who had webbed hands and feet; but the foregoing will serve to illustrate a once popular belief.

In his account, Dennison emphasised the distinction between fact and fiction, reminding his readers that the information provided until Ursilla’s marriage to her human husband was true but the second half of the account was merely “an imaginary tale, invented by gossips, in order to account for a strange phenomenon visibly seen on her descendants.”

Dennison himself lent no credibility to the fantastical elements sprinkled throughout the tale and only exposed it to the public to better ”illustrate one of the popular beliefs.” However, even though he disbeileved the folklore origin of this horny crust found on the hands and feet of some of Ursilla’s descendants, the condition at least was medically and scientifically verified.

In the end, what are we to infer from such colourful narration? Is the existence of selkies a charming but ignorant way to offer an explanation for a medical anomaly for which they couldn’t account back then? Do the selkies function as a symbol of sexual desire that must not be suppressed but satisfied? Are they an expression of longing for things beyond our mortal reach, for the forbidden, for what we term as ”the other”? Or are they a reminder of sin and loss of honour associated with spousal infidelity?

No matter the meaning we attach to it, one thing is certain: the call of the wild and the primordial still resounds in our collective unconscious, harkening back to millions of years when we ran alongside beasts and shared a home with them.

 

 

The Philosophy of Fantasy

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and…

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Top 5 Ladies of Fiction and Myth

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Rhiannon riding in Arberth. From The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1877

One of the joys of reading books is the discovery of characters who are so unique and intriguing that, even though they are the fruit of fancy and wild imagination from the part of their creators, they possess so much fire and life they literally leap from the pages as if actual beings of flesh and blood. For centuries, literature and storytelling has been mainly dominated by men, even though the tide has shifted nowadays. However, even when men had taken the stage, many of them managed to craft some very alluring female characters who are still worthy of much talk and admiration from readers for their stunning and highly complex personalities.

Here, I’ve singled out five female characters who have had a most profound impact on me and whose web of seduction still has a hold over my psyche.

5. Marian Halcombe

Marian Halcombe is a character from Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White. Set during the Victorian era where gender roles are distinct and firmly established, Marian is a breath of fresh air with her unconventional ideas regarding the position of women in society and her refusal to conform to a male-dominated world and bend under its will. With endless amount of agency, she sticks to her guns, treading upon the path she considers the right one, choosing to honour her own values instead of the ones the status quo adheres to.

Far from a weak, spineless and meek creature, she is guided by the love she harbours for her half-sister, Laura. Ever loyal and attentive to her, she protects and defends her at every turn against the malice and wicked intentions of her husband and isn’t afraid to stand up to him when she feels  her sister is threatened. Brave and courageous, she is a symbol of all these people who have the guts to be who they want to be in a society that demands uniformity and compliance.

4. Jane Eyre

The protagonist of the titular novel by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre is one of the most celebrated female characters in the history of literature. And rightly so. A coming of age story, we get to see how Jane grows up and matures into a woman. Having suffered a lot in her childhood and greatly mistreated by her aunt and cousins, from a little girl Jane fervently wants to find people in her life with whom to share her love. Not the most physically appealing person, many of the people around her judge her solely based on that fact. However, Jane’s passion isn’t to be curbed. As she grows older, she’s shown to form a friendly attachment to Helen Burns and Miss Temple and then later to fall in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester.

But even though Jane hungers for love, she values freedom, dignity and self-respect far more. A devoted Christian who despises hypocrisy and plain cold religious sentiment without substance beneath, she refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as another one of his mistresses and rejects Reed’s bloodless and frigid proposal of marriage. Even though she loves Rochester, she doesn’t become a prey to this love. Instead, she chooses to remain true to her principles. Only when she has won her freedom and her financial independence does she come back to Rochester and accepts his proposal since now she stands on equal grounds with him.

Jane Eyre is an inspiring character because she shows that, no matter how challenging and heart-wrenching is to keep our integrity intact in a society steeped in hypocrisy and injustice, what truly matters is to lead the life our conscience dictates us to lead and not a faceless majority. Because before we live with others, first we need to live with ourselves.

3. Clarimonde

Once again, the titular character from Théophile Gautier‘s short story brings to life a woman full of beauty, eroticism and seduction. A vampiress, Clarimonde falls in love with a priest, Romuald, who reciprocates her feelings, and lures him into abandoning his duties with the promise of eternal love and happiness. While not the first female vampire to grace the literary pages, Clarimonde is undoubtedly a unique conception, far removed in personality and habits from her literary vampire sisters.

While she needs Romuald’s blood to survive, she only consumes a few drops, therefore she’s a far cry from those deadly, ruthless vampiresses who’re solely consumed by bloodlust and have to murder to survive. What’s more, Clarimonde is genuinely in love with Romuald and the time he spends in her company and in her arms is filled with passion, desire and warmth. Most vampires in fiction of 19th and early 20th century involved with mortals seek nothing more than to satisfy their violent cravings with the mortals fulfilling the role of blood vessels under the guise of romantic love. But not Clarimonde.

One of the themes that permeates Gautier’s story is that of love as a power far greater than death. When Romuald is called to give last rites to a great courtesan who has fallen ill, he recognizes her as Clarimonde. When he goes to her in the castle, instead of giving her last rites and allowing her to die, he bestows upon her a kiss. With the power of his love for her passing through his lips, Romuald kisses Clarimonde and brings her back to life.

But the same thing applies to Romuald, for Clarimonde through her passion and love restores him to life and takes him far away from the coldness and stiffness his duties require, thus awaking his desires which until then were dead. An oxymoron given the fact that vampires have long been associated with death and decay.

However, the desires and fantasies she awakens in Romuald are condemned by the Church. Eroticism itself, which is the foundation and source of all life, is condemned.

Father Sérapion takes Romuald to Clarimonde’s tomb. He reveals her body is miraculously preserved thanks to Romuald’s blood. Father Sérapion pours holy water on her corpse. She crumbles into dust, but returns to Romuald later during the night and admonishes him for his betrayal, vanishing once and for all. Of particular interest are Clarimonde’s last words to Romuald which reveal her to be an innocent victim rather than the fiend Father Sérapion portrayed her to be:

Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!

Of course, the tale concludes with these words from Romuald who admits that the love he shares with Clarimonde is a far greater power than anything on heaven and earth:

Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers.

Now that is what I call a singular female creation.

2. Brunhilda

Brunhilda is a character from Ludwig Tieck’s Gothic tale Wake not the Dead. Badass, merciless, cold, stunning, lethal and yet utterly tragic. Once dead, her husband, Walter, decides to bring her back to life with the help of a sorcerer only to realize that the magic has gone horribly right. Thoughtless and impetuous, Walter ”pierces the deep abyss that separates earth from heaven”. Brunhilda returns to life but not as a mortal. She’s nothing but a corpse that requires blood to reanimate itself. A far cry from her warm and inviting kin, Clarimonde, Brunhilda exhibits a cold eroticism that scatters only death in its wake.

And yet, she’s not acting out of spite or malice or hatred for humanity. She didn’t choose to be a vampiress, condemned to this torment for all eternity. But now that is her nature and she must obey her thirst for living blood. Wake not the Dead is a tragedy and the reader cannot help but feel both terror and pity towards Brunhilda who’s trapped in this never-ending hell.

In fact, there’s a deep sense of justice and satisfaction when Brunhilda turns against Walter and calls him out on his actions, sharply reminding him that it’s him who is the true monster and not her.

When Walter returned home in the evening and laid him down to repose as usual by Brunhilda’s side, the magic power of her breath produced no effect upon him; and for the first time during many months did he close his eyes in a natural slumber. Yet hardly had he fallen asleep, ere a pungent smarting pain disturbed him from his dreams; and. opening his eyes, he discerned, by the gloomy rays of a lamp, that glimmered in the apartment what for some moments transfixed him quite aghast, for it was Brunhilda, drawing with her lips, the warm blood from his bosom. The wild cry of horror which at length escaped him, terrified Brunhilda, whose mouth was besmeared with the warm blood. “Monster!” exclaimed he, springing from the couch, “is it thus that you love me?”

“Aye, even as the dead love,” replied she, with a malignant coldness.

“Creature of blood!” continued Walter, “the delusion which has so long blinded me is at an end: thou are the fiend who hast destroyed my children–who hast murdered the offspring of my vessels.” Raising herself upwards and, at the same time, casting on him a glance that froze him to the spot with dread, she replied. “It is not I who have murdered them;–I was obliged to pamper myself with warm youthful blood, in order that I might satisfy thy furious desires–thou art the murderer!”–These dreadful words summoned, before Walter’s terrified conscience, the threatening shades of all those who had thus perished; while despair choked his voice.

“Why,” continued she, in a tone that increased his horror, “why dost thou make mouths at me like a puppet? Thou who hadst the courage to love the dead–to take into thy bed, one who had been sleeping in the grave, the bed-fellow of the worm–who hast clasped in thy lustful arms, the corruption of the tomb–dost thou, unhallowed as thou art, now raise this hideous cry for the sacrifice of a few lives?–They are but leaves swept from their branches by a storm.–Come, chase these idiot fancies, and taste the bliss thou hast so dearly purchased.” So saying, she extended her arms towards him; but this motion served only to increase his terror, and exclaiming: “Accursed Being,”–he rushed out of the apartment.

Brunhilda, despite her bloodlust and killing spree, is a profoundly sympathetic character, one who suffers unjustly due to having her agency violently stripped from her. A character whose dark charm is meant to haunt the reader the way it has haunted Walter.

1. Rhiannon

Rhiannon is a character from the first and third branch of the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh collection of prose stories. An Otherwordly woman, she is beautiful,  strong-minded, intelligent, politically strategic, generous, very magically potent and of great physical strength. Well-spoken and a deadpan snarker, she chooses Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, as her consort, in preference to another man to whom she has already been betrothed by orchestrating an elaborate plan to fulfill her wish. The couple has a son, Pryderi, but the babe is abducted and Rhiannon is wrongly accused of infanticide. She’s unjustly punished, though her punishment is lifted when the child is found and returned to his parents. As a widow, she marries Manawydan of the British royal family, and has further adventures involving enchantments.

From the moment her character appeared in the Mabinogion I fell in love with her. She’s the embodiment of all the positive qualities in a woman: beauty, strength, will and agency. But the fact that she suffers for years unjustly helps make her even more appealing because she bears it all with great patience and a majestic grace that speak volumes about her fortitude and the magnitude of her personality.

So, who are some of your favourite female characters and why? Please, share your views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Ruby

Titania-1897-Frederick-Howard-Michael

Painting by Frederick Howard Michael, Titania, 1897

”The Ruby” is a short story from the collection El Azul written by the Nicaraguan poet and writer Rubén Darío. An exquisite sample of Hispanic Modernism, ”The Ruby” narrates the story of how the titular gemstone was first birthed into the world.

The gnomes, labourers deep within the entrails of the earth to extract precious stones, find themselves in great turmoil when their leader, Puck, announces that a Parisian alchemist has constructed, through the means of sympathetic magic, a false ruby. Having travelled to Paris himself, Puck has snatched such a false stone from the golden chocker of a sleeping woman and has brought it as proof back to his fellow gromes who imprecate the alchemist as a blasphemous impostor.

Then, he proceeds to narrate the true tale regarding the events that led to the natural creation of the ruby. One day, the gnomes were in strike and they crawled out of the dark belly of the earth and into the sunlight. Puck came across a river into which a few stunning, mortal women were bathing. One of them catching his fancy,  he grabbed her by force and took her to live with him back into the subterranean cave.

Puck adored the woman, toiling night and day to pluck out the gemstones so as to scatter them all around his bed where the woman passed her days in languid nakedness. The woman, though, didn’t reciprocate his feelings because she had promised her heart to another and they had found a unique way of communicating with each other. From the depths of the dark cave, she sent her sighs to her lover and they, penetrating through the crust of the earth, reached him. In return, her lover had taken to kissing the roses of a garden and every time he scattered his kisses, the woman moved her lips as if receiving them.

One day, Puck, having sweated to pull out a passel of diamonds, threw away his hammer recklessly, a gesture which smashed the diamonds into tiny pieces, and went to sleep. He woke up because of the pained sounds the woman made. The hammer having created a hole in the cave’s wall, the woman saw this as a chance to escape and unite with her lover. But in her haste, she didn’t pay attention to the diamond-littered ground, stepped on it and fell, cutting her feet and the rest of her body. From her flowing blood, the diamonds turned red, the woman ending up lifeless.

And that’s how the rubies came into the world.

Having heard the tale, the gnomes crush the false ruby and start dancing with joviality, surrounded by the glimmering beauty and light of the precious stones wedged into the cave’s walls.

In the end, Puck sings out a hymn to the Woman, his last phrase, ”¡Y tu, Mujer, eres – espiritu y carne – toda Amor! (And you, Woman, are – spirit and flesh – all Love!).

Upon the first reading, ”The Ruby” comes across as a typical child of the Hispanic Modernist movement: magnificent descriptions, evocation of the senses, references to mythological beings, tones of fantastic elements and a love story swimming in a sea of nostalgia and romanticism.

In fact, the lush descriptions and the beauty of the prose stand out to such a degree that an unsuspected reader unfamiliar with the movement might come to view this as nothing more than an enjoyable yarn that excites and awakens the imagination.

But ”The Ruby” is much more than a pretty fruit of an overactive mind. Rubén Darío had something meaningful and important to get across and he found a very clever and moving way of delivering his message.

”The Ruby”, through the embedded love story, takes the form of an allegory. Puck compares and contrasts most vividly the birth of the false and the true ruby. The false is created effortlessly, with cheap materials and quickly. On the other hand, the real one requires suffering, blood, disregard of danger and genuine passion.

In a nutshell, Darío concludes that imitation lacks lustre and substance while originality is full of life, an honest baring of the soul. In the battle between hocus pocus and love, the latter is crowned victor.

But Rubén Darío is not merely interested in the general idea of imitation and originality. One of the most significant themes of Hispanic Modernism is that of art itself. The Nicaraguan artist takes a definitive stance and declares that real art disdains pale tricks. Instead, it demands effort and pain and fervency and unquenchable longing.

True literature is a fruit of blood, passion and love. For, after all, as Puck remarks, ”Cuando el hombre ama de veras, su pasión lo penetra todo y es capaz de traspasar la tierra (When man truly loves, his passion penetrates everything and is capable of piercing through the earth).

 

 

 

The Great Myths #33: The Child Cúchulainn Gets His Name (Celtic)

Human Pages

myths_and_legends3b_the_celtic_race_28191029_281478031515129When Culand the smith offered Conchubur his hospitality, he said that a large host should not come, for the feast would be the fruit not of lands and possessions but of his tongs and his two hands. Conchubur went with fifty of his oldest and most illustrious heroes in their chariots. First, however, he visited the playing field, for it was his custom when leaving or returning to seek the boys’ blessing; and he saw Cú Chulaind driving the ball past the three fifties of boys and defeating them. When they drove at the hole, Cú Chulaind filed the hole with his balls, and the boys could not stop them; when the boys drove at the hole, he defended it alone, and not a single ball went in. When they wrestled, he overthrew the three fifties of boys by himself, but all of them together could not overthrow him. When…

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Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns and the Door to the Otherworld in Welsh Folklore

Under the influence!

This article was originally posted on the #FolkloreThursday.com as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: Reflecting on Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns, and the Otherworldby zteve t evans September 28th, 2017.

Aske Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Welsh Lakes

There are may lakes scattered around Wales, each with their own unique characteristics and history. Many also have the most amazing legends and folklore associated with them, and the purpose of this work is to discuss some of them. This work does not attempt to be academic or scholarly. Instead, it attempts to explore thoughts that are more intuitive and reflective, and hopefully look towards stimulating ideas within the reader to construct their own interpretations of the folk tales and lakes mentioned should they wish to. 

A few things to note: Articles on the following lakes (Lake Bala also known as Llyn Tegid, Llyn Barfog, Kenfig Pool, Llyn Coch or…

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The Philosophy of Fantasy

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)

                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and terrifying world that at times seemed chaotic and cruel and to the ”monstrous” aspect of the universe, had to  hold on to something in order to understand not only his surroundings but his own identity and his relation to the natural environment around him.

The first attempt to fit the world into some semblance of a structure was mythology. The tribe, sitting around the campfire, listened with ecstasy to the storyteller, whose purpose was to placate the fear of the members of the tribe and offer some kind of meaning to life and the natural world.

The philosophic basis of the fantastic revolves around the clash between the rational and the irrational, between the logical and the absurd. The unnatural invades the natural, and the world is destroyed and recreated, because imagination itself provides the writer with endless possibilities as well as the freedom to express them.

Mythology, by nature, and most of the fantastic moves within an undefined frame of space and time. This lack of a particular space and time is what renders the genre applicable and relevant to all people and to any age.

The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov maintains the idea that the fantastic arises when characters and readers are confronted with issues and questions regarding reality. Man, experiencing the terrible gulf between night and day, between birth and death, finds recourse in conceiving another reality that borrows elements from the one in which he lives. This new reality undermines the existing one, flouts the laws that govern nature and the universe, confutes man’s knowledge and proves the limitations by which man is fettered.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character says to Horatio, ”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These ”undreamt of” things are exactly those who give voice and flesh to the fantastic.

Through the fantastic man strives to confront and surpass the finite of human life, experience and knowledge. It’s a form of rebellion where man tries to break free from his own limitations.

The burning issue in the literature of fantasy is precisely the showdown between the finite aspect of human existence and a vast, infinite world that perplexes, challenges and overwhelms us. Fantasy works borrow elements from reality and transform them, building worlds that differ, either slightly or vastly, from our own. These worlds essentially reinvent our own and, by undermining the knowledge we already have in our possession, prove once more the finite of human life that we refuse to accept and against which we display a mighty resistance.

Animals that feel, think and talk like humans, humans who morph into animals, islands that appear and disappear at will, worlds separated by veils, magic that alters the very fabric of space and time, fairies, elves, dragons, vampires, werewolves and a bevy of other supernatural creatures who coexist with humans, imaginary lands one can travel to through invisible portals, realms beneath lakes or seas, worlds that spring to life through the pages of a book, spells that master the forces of nature, potions that make people fall in love, swords that slay immortal creatures, songs that put people to sleep and sorcery that violates the boundaries between life and death are only a short sample of the fantastic.

In the literature of fantasy borders collapse; everything’s compatible and possible, no matter how illogical it might seem. The principal question that permeates and governs the fantastic is ”what if?” That’s the thought that propels all writers of the fantastic. It’s a thought that allows imagination to blend into reality, that allows the natural and the unnatural to engage into an endless wooing, that allows the rational and the irrational to marry.

It’s through this ”romance” that we satisfy our deepest desire: to come in contact, even for a fleeting moment, with that we have dared conceive of only in a flight of our wildest dreams. The fantastic helps us read and view reality from another perspective, refracted but not distorted. After all, it’s no coincidence that it frequently flourishes and makes its strongest comeback during times of historical effervescence and upheaval. Those are the times when the primeval monsters wake up from their hibernation to find their way into the pages of literature. The fantastic, after all, is nothing but a reflection of our times, an image of a sociopolitical reality observed through a concave mirror.